Harlequin romances -- running hot and cold


Ever in pursuit of a broader understanding of living literature, I just read two Harlequin "romances," simply because there are so many of them.

Toronto-based Harlequin Enterprises Ltd. and its sister-imprint, Silhouette, a subsidiary in New York, publish more than 70 new titles each month in North America. Worldwide, they sell 200 million books annually, a bit more than half in the United States and Canada.

Beyond, they publish in at least 23 languages, which include Icelandic, Turkish and Mandarin, and in more than 100 international markets, which include Brunei, Gibraltar, Malawi, Nauru, Tonga and Western Samoa.

Why read two?

One was touted as a breakthrough: The publisher's publicity pants that "'Love Game' . . . has been declared 'the sexiest book we've ever published' by the editors of Harlequin romance novels." To reckon the contrast, I sought out an example of the average, in content and sexual reference.

That is "A Secret Infatuation," by Betty Neels (Harlequin Books. 189 pages. $2.99 paperback).

Reading it was enlightening, significantly for what it never revealed. The heroine is a 25-year-old nurse, daughter of an English country village rector. Events are narrated from her vantage point, but not told in her voice. The time is now.

On page 13, out of the mist of the moors comes a mysterious, tall stranger in a Bentley, far more impressive than a Rolls, for its greater diffidence. He is Dutch, which gives him an element of mystery that nobody named Cholmondely would have. Within five pages, Eugenie tells her approving mother she would like to marry this chap.

Pursuit of prey

But how? She goes back to work in London and there he is, a brilliant visiting surgeon in her hospital. By page 40 and onward, things have got a bit difficult. He has a rich fiancee. There are other impediments, including professional proprieties. The story cuts to the chase, a flat-out pursuit of the prey across the countrysides of England, Holland and, for a touch of the exotic, Madeira, where they fly for some quite proper heart surgery.

The text and action are absolutely linear, in time sequence and in development, in awareness, in consciousness. The story rolls out easily, never letting the mind wander. There are no interludes that could nourish reflection or rumination or internal dialogue.

As the relationship develops, it remains amazingly, totally free of passion, of even the remotest suggestion of carnality. By two-thirds of the way through the book, there has been one kiss, on the cheek, without a hint of sensual suggestion.

One page 129 of 189 pages, the hero says, "I think it would be a good idea if you were to call me Aderik, don't you agree?" Aderik is his first name. Up to this joy-abounding moment, both Eugenie and the third-person narrative voice have unrelentingly referred to him as "Mr. Rijnma ter Salis."

The book ends with an unshakable commitment to marriage and to living happily forever after. They have kissed three times, chastely. In the entire text there is not a single suggestion that either her or his body contains a single gland associated with procreation.

The second book, "Love Game," by Mallory Rush (Harlequin Books. 256 pages. $4.99), is starkly different.

Or is it?

Its three-page prologue is a very declarative description of conceiving a child under a Christmas tree. None of the "seven dirty words" is used, but there is no winking or dodging about what it takes.

Then quickly the book moves into a widow's agony, the tannenbaum tot having been left fatherless by a premature heart-attack.

After a few pages of yearning, a knock on the door introduces an old high-school almost-sweetheart. It is Christmas Eve, seven years after the prologue's. A kiss under the mistletoe, but only on her cheek. By page 28 they have kissed, though demurely. By page 78 they are joined, very explicitly, in sexual congress. By page 99, the specificity of events has progressed beyond the permissible limits of description in a family newspaper.

The driving force

Throughout, there is declared sexuality, though mainly without any of those difficult words, either four-lettered or Latinate. Almost demurely, comes the "f" word, but only thrice in the entire book.

So where's the tension that drives the romance? Identical to that of "A Secret Infatuation," it involves little except the hero's elusive availability as an appropriate husband, provider, protector, progenitor.

The sex is outspoken and apparently lustful, but finally its purpose turns out to be nuptial contract and propagation of the race. She is pregnant, they are blissful. They commit to marriage, to become a "family," "with a vow as sacred as their sex, as binding as their secret word."

Who is this for? Harlequin's market profile in North America claims more than 50 million readers (presumably all women, since gender goes unmentioned): "median age 42, 70 percent have attended college, 57 percent employed, median household income $41,900." Half the readers buy more than one at a time. They give no figures on marital status.

So what does it all mean?

Retreat into intensely secure, profoundly sentimental and inhumanly uncomplicated fantasies.

Is that bad? There are more nourishing pursuits, I am certain. But I am equally certain reading the things is a healthier escape than watching television soaps. At the very least, literacy is a Good Thing.

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